LONDON — This summer, Grigor Dimitrov made a quick trip from his home in Monte Carlo to Mallorca to train with Rafael Nadal. Dimitrov arrived in the Spaniard’s backyard with an open mind and a willing body. The idea was simple: If you want to be the best, you might as well learn from the best.
For a week, the pair traded blows from the baseline, grinding it out in the sunshine and keeping his ears and eyes open for any bit of information he could glean from the man who will end the year as the world No 1.
“Who wouldn’t want to practice with the No. 1 player in the world?” Dimitrov said to ESPN.com on Wednesday, shortly after hammering David Goffin 6-0, 6-2 to book his place in the semifinals of the ATP Tour Finals. “For sure you can learn from it. It rubs off on you.”
At 26, Dimitrov was just 14 when Nadal won the French Open, in 2005, for the first time. The Bulgarian has grown up watching Nadal become one of the best players of all time. Dani Vallverdu, Dimitrov’s coach, arranged the opportunity. Dimitrov was not going to think twice about having this invaluable face time with Nadal.
Anyone who has watched Nadal practice, both during tournaments and in his own time, is familiar with the 31-year-old’s incredible work ethic. The top junior players who are lucky enough to practice with him during Grand Slams will tell you how hard it is to train at 100 percent as long as Nadal does. They often wait up to 45 minutes in the blistering sun before Nadal allows them to drink a cup of water.
“We practiced usually in the morning from 9 o’clock to around 12 maybe,” Dimitrov said. “Pretty intense practice — Rafa is an intense guy.”
Mercifully, there was some down time after practice.
“He’d say, ‘Hey man, let’s go on a boat,’ so you just go on, jump in the water, just like two kids on a regular day. I think we have a good understanding of one another, and it was a great time.”
As one of the most talented players on the tour, it has taken Dimitrov time to find his consistency. His former coach, Peter McNamara, once said he had 10 choices for every stroke, and his shot selection was often a problem. But it speaks to his innate talent that this was the case when he reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2014.
Once a concern, Dimitrov’s resolve has not waned in the past 18 months. He has climbed from No. 40 in the world into the top 10 and now a place in the ATP Finals final four. He is on course to end the year inside the top four.
Resisting the temptation to grill Nadal about everything that comes with being a champion for fear of annoying him, Dimitrov listened intently whenever the Spaniard wanted to discuss tennis. At one point, they talked about their match from this year’s Australian Open. Dimitrov pushed Nadal to five sets in the semifinals that day, a match Nadal maintains is one of his best wins of the season.
Vallverdu and Dimitrov both admitted the time with Nadal gave the Bulgarian a huge confidence boost as the summer went on, which he showed by winning his first Masters 1000 title, in Cincinnati in August. But it was more than just intensity that Dimitrov came away with.
“His etiquette is magnificent,” Dimitrov said. “Winning, losing, he has the same body language.”
Dimitrov is now two wins away from the ATP Finals title, an accomplishment that would land him the No. 3 in the rankings. And wouldn’t you know that he plans to spend another week this offseason training with Nadal.
Based on how this season is ending up, maybe this time Nadal will be the one doing the listening.